Archive for January, 2014

in performance: amanda shires

amanda shires

amanda shires.

Given its high level of sketch-like immediacy and often atmospheric intimacy, last night’s performance by Amanda Shires at Willie’s Locally Known came very close to fading into the woodwork.

Pockets of talkative, inattentive patrons within a capacity Saturday audience initially suffocated the subtle tone of the Texas guitarist/fiddler/songsmith’s hour long set. As such, the delicate fractures highlighting the show opening The Garden (What a Mess) were largely lost, as was the vibrancy of the following Bulletproof, which favored a more folkish, elemental sway over the noir-like twang and shuffle established on Shires’ fine new Down Fell the Doves album.

But when the chattier audience members refused to yield to a between-song story Shires offered about her grandmother and its effect on the singer’s use of profanity onstage, she retorted, “Hey, my grandma stories are better than your grandma stories.” With that, a handful of noisemakers departed and a more engaging air of quiet greeted such loose but restless songs as Stay, Devastate and When You Need a Train It Never Comes.

As with Bulletproof, the songs were more sparse (but still spacious) sounding than their recorded versions. The resulting ambience was nicely embellished by Shires’ only onstage bandmate, bassist and harmony vocalist Stephanie Dickinson.

Fleshing out Shires’ music with discreet flourishes that regularly revealed jazz and classical references distinguished Dickinson’s playing. But she was also a resourceful and intuitive foil for Shires’ craftier tunes. A wonderful case in point came when Look Like a Bird was pared down to only airy, open singing and Dickinson’s assured groove.

Such moments made one wish Shires would either curtail the more rambling extremes of her stage banter or else play a longer set. Some of the stage talk was entertaining enough, especially a story that outlined her infatuation with the ‘90s Sir Mix-a-Lot booty anthem Baby Got Back, which prefaced her own Shake the Walls. Too often, though, the chat was less grounded and at times disrupted the show’s intimate feel and flow.

Shires’ songs were all arresting. Why spend so much the night on idle talk when you could be showing more of them off?

critic’s pick 313: bruce springsteen, ‘high hopes’

High HopesThe first thing you notice about High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen’s18th studio album, is its title. It sounds inspirational enough – prophetic, even. But the Springsteen of today has largely bid adios to the leather jacketed romantic who was born to run years ago. The Boss has become more of an iron fisted elder, an activist adjusting – and heavily reacting – to the world around him. And what he witnesses, especially within the darkest creases of 2007’s underrated Magic and the mighty 2012 requiem Wrecking Ball often isn’t pretty.

So is High Hopes a wish for better fortunes, modest though they may be? Essentially, yes. But don’t pass out the party hats just yet. The opening title track, penned by The Havalinas’ Tim Scott McConnell and initially cut by Springsteen as far back as 1999, is a measure of just how small the victories are. “Give me love, give me peace,” barks The Boss over an E Street Band brass attack that rocks like a voodoo rhumba. “Don’t you know these days you pay for everything?”

Such purposely retooled frenzy is what High Hopes is all about. At heart, the album is a clearinghouse project. Assembled during and between legs of Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball tour, the record consists of cover tunes, unreleased works that stem back well over a decade and reimagined versions of songs he has been performing live for years. To that, he adds the augmented 18-member incarnation of the E Street Band that has been by his side onstage for much of the last two years and a new alliance with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.

What emerges is an album that bears much of the musical might that fortified Wrecking Ball. A few patches of light seep in, like the youthful and fraternal Franklie Fell in Love and a wide-eyed cover of The Saints’ Just Like Fire Would, which serve as bright backwards glances to a glorious youth. But when High Hopes storms no one is spared. Harry’s Place, an evil twin to The Rising’s Mary’s Place, takes us via a relentless synth and wah-wah groove and Springsteen’s vocal grumble, to the coldest corners of the underworld while American Skin (41 Shots) is given, some 13 years after being introduced on the road, proper studio treatment that enforces its all-too-topical urgency.

A rockish reworking of The Ghost of Tom Joad, which sinks under the weight of Morello’s surprisingly static soloing, is the only misfire. Otherwise, High Hopes uses fragments of The Boss’ musical past as kindling for the fires that continue to burn boldly on E Street.

saturday night with jason and neko

neko case

neko case performs with jason isbell tonight for ‘austin city limits.’

Set the recorders to PBS if you’re heading out this evening. Tonight’s installment of the champion Lone Star performance series Austin City Limits looks to be a fine one. Splitting the bill will be Jason Isbell and Neko Case. Both released killer recordings last year that made my Top 10 album list for 2013.

Isbell is the ex-Drive By Trucker whose songs have regularly reflected soul shadings of his Alabama heritage. His recent Southeastern album is an affirmation of a life changed by sobriety and marriage even though the demons that have been shed leave a decisive mark on the songs.

Case remains one of the most uncompromising songstresses of her generation. Her sixth and newest album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, is also an affirmation – which becomes almost anthemic on songs like Man – in the wake of loss. As always, one of modern pop’s most exact, distinct and pure singing voices leads the charge.

Spoiler alert. Here are the setlists for each artist:

Isbell: Flying Over Water, Cover Me Up, Live Oak, Elephant, Alabama Pines, Super 8.

Case: Night Still Comes, Red Tide, Calling Cards, Hold On Hold On, I Wish I Was the Moon; Ragtime; Man.

Austin City Limits aits at 11:30 p.m. tonight on KET-TV.

feelin’ like a million, part 2

mdq 2

james barry (as carl perkins) and scott moreau (as johnny cash) in ‘million dollar quartet.’ photo by jeremy daniel.

For James Barry, the opportunity to portray Carl Perkins in Million Dollar Quartet (opening tonight for a weekend run at the Lexington Opera House) meant being able to re-introduce audiences to a rock pioneer whose legacy has often been overshadowed by the other three singers.

“Playing Carl Perkins is especially an honor because he tends to be the member of the Million Dollar Quartet that folks don’t know as much about,” Barry said. “His career didn’t really explode in the same way it did with the other three. So I take great pride in being able to share part of his story and his music with people who maybe didn’t know as much about him.”

Million Dollar Quartet musical director and B549 co-founder Chuck Mead, who became close friends with Perkins before his death in 1998, added, “The tribute to just how important Carl Perkins was, for me, came when I was over at his house. On the wall were four Carl Perkins Fan Club cards signed by their members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. They recorded more Carl Perkins tunes than any other outside artists. Yet he is a towering figure that a lot of people don’t know. To me, I can’t imagine a world without Carl Perkins because that’s just the way I grew up. Sure, with people in our part of the country, it’s like that. But up in New York, they don’t know who Carl Perkins is. But they know a little about him after the show.”

Perkins was also the last of the Quartet members to make an appearance in Lexington. He signed copies of his autobiography Go Cat Go (a reference to one of the opening lines in Blue Suede Shoes) at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in May 1996. Among those greeting him was veteran Lexington roots and rockabilly singer Mike Tevis.

“The first things I remember about that night were the blue suede cowboy boots he was wearing,” Tevis said. “I thought, ‘Those are the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life.’ I was pretty silenced by his greatness, really.”

But Perkins also played icebreaker for the event. When Tevis and several others, including the late local bluesman Joey Broughman, posed for a photo with him, Perkins knew just the thing to get everyone to smile.

“When we were together for the picture, Carl started singing,” Tevis recalled. “I heard, ‘Well-it’s-a one for the money, two for the show,’ right in my ear. So we all got to sing Blue Suede Shoes with him. It was a real moment.

Barry cautions, however, that Million Dollar Quartet doesn’t shy away from the frustrations Perkins felt as his stardom faded while the fortunes of the other Quartet singers rose.

“I do my best to give as many glimpses of that wonderful, generous, selfless, big-hearted guy that everyone who loves Carl Perkins knows is there,” Barry says. “But in the show, Carl is in a tough place.

“Carl was going to play Blue Suede Shoes on The Perry Como Show but got in a bad car accident on his way to New York. Elvis wound up playing Blue Suede Shoes on national television before Carl, so that’s a big point of contention. Carl is also endlessly frustrated by Jerry Lee Lewis through the course of our play, who is just dancing all over Carl’s songs.

“There is reconciliation but also a lot of conflict about Carl deciding to leave Sun Records for Columbia because he feels as though (Sun chieftain) Sam Phillips has given up on him to a degree. That’s part of the dramatic tension of the show, so I don’t get to live as much in that wonderful, generous guy we all know from interviews. It’s really a sad story to tell.”

Mead added, “Everybody at these shows just gets caught up in the whole thing because it is so true and honest and raw. People in theater today maybe don’t get that a lot. You get the big production numbers with something like Wicked, and that’s great. You get a sort of traditional Broadway theater experience that way. But this is just a little bit different. It hits a little bit harder and a little bit faster. Just like rock ‘n’ roll, you know?”

Million Dollar Quartet plays at 8 p.m. Jan.10;  2 and 8 p.m. Jan.11; 1 and 6 p.m. Jan 12 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets are $30-$105. Call (800) 745-3000, (859) 233-3535 or go to


feelin’ like a million, part 1

mdq cast

the cast of ‘million dollar quartet.’ photo by jeremy daniel.

It began as a recording session, a chance for rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins to capitalize on his landmark hit Blue Suede Shoes. What it became was a summit of four rock ‘n’ roll legends — one established, two on the cusp of stardom and one still an unknown — lighting up the famed Sun Studios in Memphis on an early December evening in 1956. What unfolded was the night of the Million Dollar Quartet.

“It was the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll,” said James Barry, who plays Perkins in Million Dollar Quartet, the Tony Award-winning musical of the session that brought the Blue Suede Shoes hitmaker together with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. The show plays this weekend at Lexington Opera House. “The music created just goes straight to that fun, reckless abandoned center in your mind and then steps on the gas. It’s not music you have to go on and think about. It’s nothing but fun, just pure fun.

“These guys were so young. And actually, none of them really sounded like each other. You’ve got four guys in their early 20s with, already, such unique musical identities. That type of rock ‘n’ roll, it was just pure excitement. It’s an adrenaline rush.

Million Dollar Quartet is a musical dramatization of that December evening, even though it incorporates events that transpired in the careers of the four artists during the following 18 months. At the time of the sessions, Perkins was recording Matchbox, a tune he hoped would maintain the career momentum established by Blue Suede Shoes, which had become a huge hit earlier in 1956. A then-unknown Lewis was recruited for the session. Presley and Cash also had hit big that year with Heartbreak Hotel and I Walk the Line, respectively.

Million Dollar Quartet celebrates nearly all of that music (the 1954 Presley hit That’s All Right subs for Heartbreak Hotel in the production) and the singles that would soon catapult Lewis’ career. But the musical’s authors, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, wanted authenticity with the music, not a perfunctory musical theater translation of it.

“They didn’t want it to be Broadway rockabilly. They wanted it to be real rockabilly,” said Chuck Mead, co-founder of the popular roots country band BR549, who has served as musical director for Million Dollar Quartet since its 2006 beginnings on stages in Florida and Washington, followed by premieres on Broadway in 2010 and London’s West End in 2011, through to the Actors’ Equity touring production that comes to Lexington this weekend.

“There are only eight people onstage for this play. Total. And six of them are playing instruments,” Mead said. “Four of them have to be bigger-than-life icons, as well, and pull that all off. And they do. It’s a tribute to how many talented people we found to do this thing. The tour out there, man, they are at the top of their game. I can’t wait for you all to see them in Lexington.”

Read the rest of our preview of Million Dollar Quartet tomorrow in The Musical Box.

Million Dollar Quartet plays at 8 p.m. Jan.10;  2 and 8 p.m. Jan.11; 1 and 6 p.m. Jan 12 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets are $30-$105. Call (800) 745-3000, (859) 233-3535 or go to

critic’s pick 312: king crimson, ‘usa’

usaWhen the concert document USA was initially released in 1975, King Crimson had already dethroned itself. One of the more innovative and uncompromising of the British prog rock troupes with roots extending back to late ‘60s psychedelia, the band had reinvented itself with multiple new lineups that retained guitarist Robert Fripp as its only constant. With each new roster came what amounted to an almost exclusively new repertoire. Thus, the music captured on a New Jersey evening in June 1974 for USA was the product of a dynamic quartet version consisting of Fripp, ex-Yes drummer Bill Bruford, bassist John Wetton (who would attain mainstream stardom a decade later with Asia) and violinist David Cross. Their material would come from the two previous Crimson studio records and one that would be completed following the tour but before the band’s subsequent breakup. And, yes, one relic from the ‘60s Crimson, 21st Century Schizoid Man, would round out the set with a bristling urgency that could hardly be termed nostalgic.

This new USA edition comes to us as the most recent entry in an extensive, multi-year reissue campaign of Crimson recordings. It’s a beautiful sounding work, too, that sharpens greatly Fripp’s winding runs that whip like lightning during Schizoid Man but cool to a meditative ambience to orchestrate Exiles. The new mix (by Fripp, Tony Arnold and David Singleton) also enhances the freight train rumble of Wetton’s bass work when the band goes hunting on the improvisatory Asbury Park and Cross’ keen violin turns that continually prove an able foil for Fripp but also guide the elegiac Starless from a plaintive lament as to beastly bolero-like dirge.

But if any performer benefits most from this new mix, it’s the mighty Bruford. From the alarm clock clarity that, along Fripp’s power chords, announces Crimson’s arrival on Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part II) to the chiming variations on the percussive theme of Fracture, the playful but exact tone of Bruford’s playing drives USA. It also provides a solid case for calling this the most improvisatory savvy lineup in Crimson’s history.

Of course, the band didn’t die with USA. It reformed with a new purpose and new lineup (with Kentucky’s own Adrian Belew) seven years later. There is even word that Fripp is preparing yet another Crimson for active duty later in 2014. But for now, we have this artfully enhanced parting shot from a band that, thankfully, has never been able to fully call it quits.

phil everly, 1939-2014

the everly brothers

the everly brothers: phil and don, circa 1960.

Remove the Everly Brothers from the lasting spectrum of contemporary pop, folk, country and especially rock ‘n’ roll and you would be left with music that would have never reached the artistic peaks it hit over the past four decades. The sounds would have still bloomed and perhaps even thrived, but they would have been considerably less enriched.

In fact, considering music without the Everlys would be like viewing it without Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley or any of the other forefathers whose contributions energized the emergence of a new pop generation.

Not surprisingly, the brothers were recognized by nearly every groundbreaking rock and pop troupe that emerged in the ‘60s – from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones to a folk legion led by Simon and Garfunkel. That’s how enormous they were.

Yesterday, Phil Everly, the younger of the siblings, died at age 74 from complications of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

In Kentucky, of course, the Everlys maintained strong ties long after their commercial visibility subsided. Older brother Don was born while the Everly family was part of a coal mining community in Muhlenberg County. Phil was born two years later after the family relocated to Chicago. Several additional moves followed before the Everly Brothers settled in Nashville to start their careers in 1955.

Their first hit came in 1957 with Bye Bye Love. For the next five years, they amassed a catalog of songs that sported harmonies of country-like symmetry with Phil Everly handling the bottom end. They continued to make strong (though far less popular) recordings through the ‘60s and early ‘70s and again when the duo enjoyed a brief renaissance during the late ‘80s. The latter period, which yielded a quartet of fine albums, culminated in two 1986 triumphs – the efficiently emotive title tune to the Everlys’ Born Yesterday album and the harmonies the brothers supplied to the title song from Paul Simon’s epic Graceland.

Here in Kentucky, the Everlys paid tribute to their Kentucky roots by staging an annual benefit in Central City (often with fellow Muhlenberg County alum John Prine) that ran from 1988 to 2002. But it was at the 1988 Kentucky State Fair that I saw my one and only Everlys concert, a performance spearheaded by the great guitarist Albert Lee, the artist largely responsible for bringing the brothers back together after a decade long split in 1983.

Anyone doubting the lasting influence of the Everlys need look no further than today’s pop charts. There sits a record called Foreverly, a recasting of the Everlys’1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us by the unlikely duo of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Grammy winning jazz-pop celeb Norah Jones. It’s a loving and understated nod to music that was so beautifully born yesterday.

critic’s pick 311: neil young, ‘live at the cellar door’

neil young-cellar door“You’d laugh too if this is what you did for a living,” says a giddy (and, in all likelihood, chemically enhanced) Neil Young at the close of Live at the Cellar Door, the extraordinary new entry in the veteran songsmith’s ongoing archive series of concert recordings.

Initially, you don’t know how to take the remark. Young offers it after noodling about on a nine foot Steinway piano he explains was included in his contract as an “eccentricity.” Of course, he goes on to admit he had only been playing piano “seriously” for less than a year. Ah, the trappings of a pop star.

But Young was a star nonetheless at the time of this solo outing – a late 1970 engagement at the Washington, D.C. folk/blues haven The Cellar Door. Young’s tenure in the Buffalo Springfield was behind him, as were debut runs and recordings with his garage rock troupe Crazy Horse and the superstar alliance with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.

But here, Young sounds like the prototype hippy folkie. Just as James Taylor did a few months earlier with Sweet Baby James, Young recoiled into a mix of folk-rock reflections for his then-current album, After the Gold Rush. Live at the Cellar Door summons five of the more folk-directed reveries from the record in unaccompanied arrangements that vary little from the wide-eyed starkness of the Gold Rush versions. The opening Tell Me Why rolls along with a partly cloudy guitar melody that enhances a sense of romance that is desperate (“it’s so hard to make arrangements for yourself”) yet oddly hopeful. Don’t Let It Bring You Down travels a far darker path, plodding the kind of personal and social unrest in a way that seems conversational.

Both are brilliant readings but remain somewhat expected for a Young performance at the time. The surprises come with songs that bookend Gold Rush. With Buffalo Springfield, Expecting to Fly sported bittersweet, Beach Boys-style orchestration. On Live at the Cellar Door, it is laid bare in a coarse solo piano setting that establishes the work as one of the greatest (though least uplifting) love songs of Young’s career. From the other end comes See the Sky About to Rain, which wouldn’t surface in studio form until 1974’s On the Beach. This piano version is gorgeously deflating, a downward spiral journey with “signals curling on an open flame.” Sounding like Kurt Cobain without the grungy pathos, the song enforces the fact that even at this early stage of stardom, Young’s music was no laughing matter.

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